A powerful US House committee has applied further pressure to TikTok by backing legislation that could give Joe Biden the power to ban the social video app.
The House foreign affairs committee voted on Wednesday along party lines to grant the administration new powers to ban the Chinese-owned app as well as other apps believed to pose security risks. The fate of the measure is still uncertain and it would need to be passed by the full House and Senate before it can go to Biden.
The Republican committee chair, Michael McCaul, described TikTok this week as a “spy balloon in your phone”, referring to the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina last month. Democrats on the committee voted against McCaul’s deterring America’s technological adversaries act but Republican lawmakers pushed it through 24 to 16.
The committee vote came in the same week that Canada joined the US in banning TikTok from being installed on all government-issued mobile devices, due to security concerns. The European Commission has also banned TikTok from staff phones. Politicians who support the TikTok bans have expressed concerns that the Chinese government could access user data or manipulate public opinion via the app – accusations that TikTok denies.
On Monday the British government said there was no evidence of the need for a TikTok ban.
“We have no evidence to suggest that there is a necessity to ban people from using TikTok,” the UK’s secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, Michelle Donelan, told Politico. “That would be a very, very forthright move, that would require a significant evidence base to be able to do that.”
McCaul told Reuters after the vote that he thinks the TikTok bill will be taken up on the floor “fairly soon” and voted on by the full House this month. He said this week that Democrats would prefer to rely on a security review of TikTok being undertaken by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, although an approved plan has yet to emerge from that process.
Representative Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, said he opposed the legislation because it would “damage our allegiances across the globe, bring more companies into China’s sphere, destroy jobs here in the United States and undercut core American values of free speech and free enterprise”. TikTok has around 110 million users in the US, according to analytics firm data.ai, and more than 1 billion worldwide.
In a letter sent to McCaul this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned that the legislation was “vague and overbroad” and would “violate the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use TikTok to communicate, gather information, and express themselves daily”.
TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, said it was “disappointed” to see the legislation being brought forward.
“A US ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide. We’re disappointed to see this rushed piece of legislation move forward, despite its considerable negative impact on the free speech rights of millions of Americans who use and love TikTok,” said a TikTok spokesperson.
On Tuesday a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said banning TikTok on US government devices revealed Washington’s own insecurities and was an abuse of state power.
Reuters contributed reporting
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